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19 December 2019

Vendors fail to nail live streaming costs, especially one-off events

There is no need to regurgitate statistics about the live streaming boom, save to stress that it is still ongoing in major markets around the world, with China as often generating some astronomical data. But one point of note that did emerge from the recent Streaming Media West conference in Los Angeles was that streamers are often being let down by their vendors over costing and sizing projects, especially for one-off events.

While premium sports, breaking news, concerts and festivals are well known as major drivers of live streaming, there has also been strong growth for covering events in the business arena, especially international conferences. Budgeting and planning for such events can be a minefield for organizers of such events, especially if they are new to the game, with a number of questions they need to consider.

At Streaming Media West, Robert Reinhardt, CTO of VideoRx, which provides consultancy to both streamers and their technology providers, hinted that vendors can fail to clarify the options and educate their customers over the decision process they should be taking in order to contain costs while meeting their expectations and requirements. Even for conferences, the need is not necessarily for a new system since the organizer, or the venue concerned, may already have facilities in place but find they do not scale to the size of audience they are now addressing.

Either way, one of the first questions to ask, according to Reinhardt, which sounds reasonable, is what the price is of failing to deliver any of the promised live streams during the event, even if they are still available on demand shortly afterwards. This cost will vary enormously with the event, noting that there is significant growth in monetizing business conferences via PPV (Pay Per View), sponsorship or advertising. This is being driven by the fact organizers often make their livelihoods by charging delegates for attendance and so that business model would be undermined if access to live streams was free. In this case, PPV makes most sense and can provide an additional revenue stream. On the other hand, in the case say of academic or medical conferences, there may be a case for advertising with the pact for viewers being that they are spared cost of attendance in return for intrusion of ads.

Clearly when viewers have paid for access to live streams, the costs of failure or even of slight glitches in audio or video quality are amplified. In such cases, as Reinhardt noted, a lot more should be paid for redundancy. This may mean renting redundant equipment for standby at the event, as well as budgeting for additional bandwidth or streaming capacity, which can involve painful decisions when there is a significant financial constraint.

“Working with a budget, this is probably the hardest thing to do when you’re trying to run productions, figuring out just how much the client wants to spend on redundancy,” admitted Reinhardt. This may entail either stretching the budget beyond the level the client hoped or expected to pay, or make compromises somewhere, possibly on video quality.

Reinhardt rightly urges service providers to think clearly about their requirements and priorities during the process of setting up a streaming platform, whether for a one-off event or on a permanent basis. The first key questions are those of redundancy and how important that is, and whether or not a paywall is required. Another one is that perennial question of build or buy, which means first exploring turnkey options and assessing whether any match most or all of the required features. If they do not then the question has to be asked whether there are enough in-house technical resources to manage the deployment internally, especially if there are the added complications of implementing PPV. It may be that the project is best conducted with the help of an external vendor to fulfill support and ongoing maintenance.

Whichever course is taken, the next questions start to drill down into details such as what existing procedures there are for user administration and then, if a paywall is required, whether there are facilities already in place for accepting payments with a credit card provider, or via an integrated PayPal pipeline, for other member services.

In the event of PPV, naturally security then arises, which leads to questions over what the actual risks are, and lifecycle of value. There may be a desire to allow access to live streams only for a limited time, or it may be that after a period the content is made freely available anyway, if the value is deemed to decay with time rather in the manner of live sports. It may be that just some streams are put behind a paywall, while some might be considered sufficiently valuable as to require encryption to combat eavesdropping or piracy, even if that sounds fanciful for a lot of business conference content.

Streams that are encrypted will require integration of DRM because that is the mechanism for applying decryption according to business rules relating to authentication and other factors such as restrictions over time of access or geography.

At this stage, consideration also needs to be given to features at least at the higher level, such as whether network DVR functionality should be included to allow users to pause and rewind a live stream to replay earlier portions and then resume behind real time, or if desired fast forward back to the present. Among other features, live captioning in multiple languages might be required, entailing further integrations with the server and player infrastructure.

At least if such questions can be considered and answered, the streamer and supporting vendors are well placed to proceed to detailed technical specifications and choices over issues such as streaming, encoding and packaging technologies.